Every year there’s a frenzy around the NBA Draft. College basketball reaches its climax with March Madness, and from there the highly touted college prospects turn their attention to the media after doing all they can do on the court to raise their stock. With the media whirlwind surrounding one particular prospect, you could be forgiven for having no clue who Markelle Fultz even was. However, there’s a reason Fultz was the number one pick, rather than Lonzo Ball.
Fultz’s profile was much lower than Ball’s. For starters, his Washington Huskies team registered a 9-22 record; his dad also never appeared on First Take; he didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament; his family also doesn’t own an apparel brand selling $495 sneakers.
Fultz has escaped much of the attention that follows a number one draft pick mainly because of Ball and the Big Ballers, and that’s not where the differences end. While Ball is a pass-first point guard, Fultz’s eyes are on the rim. A naturally gifted scorer with ridiculous creativity, he’s a born All-Star and is likely a 20 points per game scorer.
So what else is there to Fultz’s game, and how does he fit with the young Philly core?
The center piece of Fultz’s game is certainly his scoring capabilities, and he has the talent to be a player in the mold of a James Harden or Kyrie Irving. His greatest weapon is undoubtedly his handle, and he has a knack for finding a way to the basket. A range of dazzling moves exists in his arsenal, which he utilized to great effect in scoring 23.2 points per game on 47.6% shooting from the field in his lone college year.
Able to change speeds and directions quickly, Fultz gets a decent amount of separation on the dribble, which allowed him to shoot 42% on pull-up jumpers, being especially good from the mid-range. His transition into the dribble was smooth, and his handle is all around impressive. He frequently uses his euro step and was an expert at splitting ball screens on his way to the rim, while contorting his body in some ridiculous manners. He is a heavy pick and roll ball handler (30.4% of all possessions), which is useful in today’s NBA offenses centered around it.
While his game is focused on scoring, he is an able and willing passer. Even with the poor quality of players around him, Fultz averaged 6.5 assists, and it could have been far more had he been on a better team. While not an elite passer, he is good enough to be able to distribute with both hands and with good court vision, so expect that assist number to rise.
While an exceptional offensive player, it’s not a stretch to say that Fultz will be one of the worst defenders in the league next season. Considering that he would have been paired with Isaiah Thomas in Boston had the number one pick not been traded, it’s best for everyone that he won’t play there as that backcourt was stopping nobody. Fultz rarely gets into anything approaching a defensive stance and doesn’t slide his feet, meaning that he is easily blown past by the player he defends.
Being 6’4” with a 6’9” reach, Fultz has the physical capabilities to be a good defender. Yet, his effort level that lets him down. A key indicator of this is the low level of hustle plays he makes – he does take some blocks and managed 13.3% of defensive rebounds, but he’s usually out of the game while the other team takes the ball.
Washington, overall, had a poor defensive culture last year; it’s likely that NBA coaches won’t accept that from him, so there is the possibility of improvement. He was playing 36 minutes a game last year, with an extremely high usage rate. Both those numbers will come down in the NBA so expect slightly more effort in defense this year.
Room for improvement
As well as defense, Fultz also has some work to do in order to round out his brilliant offensive game. While he gets to the rim frequently and his creativity consistently puts him in scoring positions, his finishing needs some work, as he often misses shots at the rim he should make, which is usually an anticlimax after an impressive move to get there. In particular, Fultz struggles with larger defenders at the rim.
He also was surprisingly bad at drawing fouls in the way that Harden or other seasoned pros do; this is partly due to a lack of strength, being only 185 pounds, so his moves are focused on staying clear of defenders rather than steering into them. When he did get to the line, Fultz shot only 65% from free throws, an abysmal rate for a scoring guard.
Fultz did shoot 41.5% from three-point range, though it’s not the safest looking jumper, nor was it consistent every time, so it may take some time to adjust to the NBA three-point line. It was also far better coming off two feet rather than one; don’t expect Fultz to be many threes coming off screens with little time just yet.
Fit with Philadelphia
There isn’t much more to say about his fit other than this is a match made in heaven; one of the league’s most exciting young talents is joining up with the league’s most exciting young core, and Philly has officially reached “league pass alert” status.
Ben Simmons and Fultz will likely share ball handling responsibilities, while newly signed two-guard JJ Reddick will work off the ball as a spot-up shooter and cutter, not needing (or wanting?) his share of on-ball time. While Simmons isn’t a particularly good shooter, Reddick has led the league in three-point shooting percentage, and Simmons’ front court partners in Dario Saric and Joel Embiid are both excellent floor stretchers at their relative positions, meaning Fultz will be able to go to work with his handles on the interior as much as he pleases.
As a high effort defender, Reddick will likely take the point guard on defense, leaving the off ball guard for Fultz, and his likely reduced usage rate on offense shouldn’t do any harm to his effort levels. Unfortunately, his low level of strength means he can’t hide on non-shooting forwards in the manner that Houston hides Harden, so Fultz will cop some targeting on the perimeter.
When facing a team with two ball handling guards, they’ll likely face more trouble. Coach Brett Brown won’t be imploring his team to switch defensively on the rest of the league either, as they’ll exploit Fultz to no end. In today’s NBA, system defense is often greater than isolated defense; if Brown can coax Fultz into learning a system and teach him some basics (getting into a stance, for starters), he shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
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